Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Fathers and Daughters by Benjamin Markovits




(Highly Recommended)




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Benjamin Markovits’ new book, Fathers and Daughters, contains four connected novellas, named for each season, and focuses on characters who have in common their work at a prep school north of Manhattan. Markovits deploys restraint in character development and plot, and allows the characters to mature through multiple points of view in each novella. There’s a wide emotional range that Markovits masters in this work, and he taps into just the right degree of melancholy, human shortcomings, and the bonds of relationships. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of the section titled, “Winter,” “Second Chance,” pp. 67-73:



           He had never been a coward with respect to habits and could break them when he chose. Even so, Howard Peasbody had his routines. On Tuesday mornings his first class began late, at ten-thirty, but he woke up at seven anyway and went for a run through Riverside Park. He did not enjoy it but suffered it rather, in grudging concession to the demands of his ego, which was unwilling to live without a certain modest level of creature vani­ties. His stippled face, scarred by acne, had been somewhat smoothed over by age1 his thin hair looked least bad loose on his head1 a comb seemed to take twenty thousand dollars a year from his social status. Still, he was tall enough and ran to fat only around the hips. There was something of the gentleman in his manner; he had the kind of natural wit and fine feeling that turned every imperfection into an expression of subtler character: a refusal to join in. When he came back, consciously virtuous and Sweating vaguely into the neck of his Harvard sweatshirt, he Woke his lover for breakfast. This was the single morning of the working week Tomas sat up for him, still sweet with sleep, stretched out, yawning, in his loosely girdled bathrobe. He picked at the newspaper Howard brought up after his run, sniffed a cup of coffee. It was too early for him, almost a quarter to eight, but he endured the desultory chat for the sake of Howard’s com­pany, for the plain fact of his presence, a something extra given once a week before the day drew them apart again and set them among strangers.


Tomas flattered himself that it was mostly for his sake the “old guy” did his bit to keep in shape. But Howard liked to feel the muscle in his limbs aching into growth, enjoyed the pleasant sense of something difficult done with. A cup of black tea with a half spoon of sugar1 a toasted bagel, buttered. He had a sweet tooth and usually starved it, the tea struck him as a guilty treat. That five-mile run exhausted, among other things, his power to be dissatisfied. And he never found the company of his lover more comfortable than on these late breakfasts. Our bodies, he thought, are easier to please than anything else. And they didn’t have to talk much. Tomas was usually fond of chatter, in which Howard occasionally heard the undertone of reproach: Why aren’t we happy when I am or could be, but for you? But these early mornings kept him quiet. And Howard could peacefully enjoy the warm gravity of the younger man’s body, which seemed at times the only thing preventing something loose in him from drifting free.


On Tuesdays Howard left late enough to check the mail on his way out, another habit that reinforced his sense of a leisured breakfast. He stooped in the lobby to peer down the brass-walled slot, took out a sheaf of envelopes and magazines, and sorted them quickly into the pleasurable and the professional. Returned the latter and jammed the rest into the inside pocket of his teach­ing jacket: sometimes a letter from his widower father, a retired schoolmaster himself, living in Connecticut, maybe a note from a college friend (Howard had remained unseduced by the Internet and continued to correspond by the mail) occasionally, the boon of an early New Yorker. Then he bought a cup of coffee from the newsagent and walked to the subway at Eighty-sixth Street, set­tled into the relatively empty uptown train, spread whatever he had across his lap, and began to read, keeping his coffee between his knees. Most of the time of course there was nothing at all in the mail, and then he only drank his coffee and tried not to con­sider the upcoming day.


On the Tuesday after Thanksgiving—a steadily miserable driz­zly morning whose only chance at better things was to give way to a light fat snowfall in the evening—Howard got both a letter and the magazine. The letter surprised him; the return address in the top left corner read “A Rosenblum” and offered a phone num­ber beneath the Street reference, tacked on in a different pen at a different angle, as if she had forgotten to include it in the letter itself, or had suddenly worried that she had forgotten, after sealing the envelope. Or he had forgotten. But Howard, with a swiftness in reaching conclusions that surprised him, assumed A was Anne, a woman he had been friendly with in the first few terms of his graduate course in biology at NYU. They had parted awkwardly enough at the time and had not seen each other for the better part of two decades—that is, for almost half their lives. Still, Something about the writing must have suggested her to him, for they had exchanged more than a few letters in their day. He had plenty of time to sort through his memories of her, as he bought his coffee and made his wet way along Eighty-third Street east­ward and uptown toward the subway.


Anne Rosenblum was one of those Vermont Jews he used to know plenty of in college, arty and conventional both, well read, and handsome enough in a broad-shouldered way, unless it was only the shawls and cardigan collars banked around her neck. A countrified complexion, good-natured brown eyes, dry, curly hair mostly twisted into a bun. He had always liked her: a straightforward girl underneath the rather self-conscious bohemian wrappings, with a sharp mind and an affable gossipy manner that required none of the delicate insinuating conde­scension with which Howard habitually addressed most women. (And, he had to admit, most men as well, as he got older.) Indeed something about her—a certain bluntness or intellectual vigor— struck him as manly and he remembered a phrase he used at the time (to her, in fact) to describe the effect of her company: “You always take me firmly by the hand.” The analogy upset her, per­haps he intended it to. It suggested the rather hail-fellow-well met manner of a woman unsure of her sexual charms. He suspected she was cleverer than he (a painful admission) but con­soled himself with the thought that she lacked his reserves of dis­cipline, of disinterest, of abstemiousness, qualities by which he had hoped to prune himself over time into a simpler, more func­tional shape.


And in fact she dropped out of the Ph.D. program in her sec­ond year to become a writer, a betrayal of her parents’ expecta­tions she had spent much of their brief acquaintance worrying over and planning. But she never told him when she packed her bags; he remembered being surprised at the time. Occasionally, and more and more recently, he came across her name in the sci­ence section of the New York Times. She wrote mostly about mat­ters relating to genetic engineering (the subject of her aborted dissertation). And though these articles signaled success after a fashion, he remembered her well enough, he supposed, to know that such work fell short of her ambitions. She had wanted to write plays, and to spend her literary life trading off neglected studies must have effected a painful coming down in her own esti­mation. The phrase pleased Howard as he thought of it, sug­gested to him the careful way we back down an unsteady ladder.


By the time, however, he found his seat in the train, it occurred to him that he must have taught any number of Rosenblums in the past ten years, even an Aaron, an Amy. A few Hasidim at Columbia with dirty locks and ashy black coats stepped on, head­ing for Washington Heights. It was far more likely that some stu­dent, lately gone to college, or indeed the mother of some student, had written to thank him, or rather, to mention some recent success. A number of his kids had gone on to become doc­tors or professors and liked to credit him for inspiring them etc. to go one better than he had. The week after Thanksgiving was just the time you might expect to get such letters: two months into freshman year, or med school, after the first decent holiday, the first chance to reflect. It rarely pleased him, to be honest, such self-promoting gratitude, and it wouldn’t, to be blunt, sur­prise him to hear it coming from a Rosenblum. They tended to possess a rather odious sense of the honor of the teaching profes­sion, not uninfluenced by the fact that teachers stood at the gate­way of their parental heaven, an Ivy League education for their children. Besides, he knew he was an excellent teacher, that wasn’t one of his self-doubts. He did not trick anyone into his subject, he didn’t set out to charm. (These phrases often ran through his head, word for word, at the end of a bad class, perhaps, or at some slight from the administration, and sometimes spilled over into unrelated dissatisfactions, as he sat on the pot in his lunch hour and remembered a spat with Tomas: “I don’t trick anyone, I don’t set out to charm    Not quite true, of course; charm was the one attraction he could command. His air of patient irony often seduced others into climbing up to share his view, the thin, cold atmosphere of his perch.)


He trusted his own passion for his subject, dry but steady and sustaining. The view opened out at Dyckman Street, as the train ran up the elevated tracks. Broadway looked grim at the top, nothing but discount stores and bad cafés; truant and jobless boys hanging around outside the doughnut shop. Then he rattled past the warehouses—watched a couple of late students slouch on— and over the concrete flat of the river. You need a few people to drum into kids that curiosity is the hardest and not the easiest instinct to satisfy. You need a teacher who doesn’t play to the gallery for laughs, who lets the kids come to him and not the other way around. A familiar litany that brought out his least ironic inner voice, the voice of his father’s son. “Honest enough to fail them, to make them win their praise so they know what praise is, the kind of thing you can earn only when you reach the point it doesn’t matter anymore, it doesn’t please you.”


The letter lay in his lap unopened as the train scraped in to 242nd Street. He looked at his watch, just gone nine, and let the kids get off first; he didn’t like to hurry in front of his students. The envelope had caught the wet of his walk; the ink had run a little and dried again, and the paper bubbled slightly and crackled under his thumb. Surprised that he had already registered its opening as a pleasure deferred, he slipped it inside his jacket pocket. A value assigned without conscious intent. It could only reflect some dormant curiosity about his former friend, who belonged to a very different phase in his life—when he had had other prospects and spent his privacy on other thoughts. The thing would happily trouble him in the course of the day, until he opened it on the subway downtown, when it would surely disap­point. Either way, that is, even if it was from Anne Rosenblum. Only when a woman in an orange plastic jersey pushed open the door with a mop and bucket did he press himself up on his knees and walk out. “Last stop,” she said, “we’re cleaning up.” Something he had to watch in himself: He had begun to let his reluctance to do certain things express itself in his manner and his actions.


It would be hard to find a finer description of a commute to work. Fathers and Daughters is a finely written work, with characters linked in their present, bound to the past, and full of desires, love and fear.



Steve Hopkins, February 23, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the March 2006 issue of Executive Times


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